You finally took your first steps to becoming an independent consultant or freelance professional. You’ve gone through the legalities of forming your consulting firm or freelance business, set up a company website, designed business cards and had them printed.
You’re ready to go. Yet you still haven’t quit your job to pursue independent consulting full-time. Why not? Because you don’t have any clients lined up, and you’re darned if you know how to find them.
Follow these tips and you should have your first client in no time.
Do Your Research
If there’s one no-fail rule in consulting it’s that you have to be competitive. You can’t be competitive if you don’t know anything about your competition. Find out how long they’ve been in business, what exact services they offer, who some of their past and present clients are and what they charge. You’ll be able to find a lot of this information on their websites.
Start a Database of Potential Clients
While you’re researching your competitors and taking note of who their past and present clients are, write down their names. Look up their contact information, and try to find out who is in charge of hiring consultants in your field if you decide to pitch them yourself (best if they’re a past client and not already working with your competitor). More importantly, look for companies similar to these — their competitors who might not yet be working with a consultant in your specialty area.
Have a Quality Portfolio
Your portfolio is your calling card. If you don’t have quality samples of past work to show potential clients, you’re not likely to convince them to hire you. While portfolios are more appropriate for freelancers, consultants can see similar benefits from case studies.
Offer to be an Expert for Your Local Media
This is commonplace for professionals in teaching fields, but many other consultants never think about it. Contact your local newspaper, radio station or television station, and tell them your credentials. Then invite them to contact you for feedback and information when they’re researching stories related to your expertise.
If you’re a management professional, for example, maybe they’ll contact you in relation to an article in the Business Section of your local paper. You won’t be paid for it, but you’ll likely be mentioned and quoted, leading to greater exposure among members of your target audience. You’ll also cement your reputation as an expert in the subject.
Offer Your Services to Nonprofit Organizations
This is a good option if you’re not confident enough in your current portfolio. You can volunteer your services, and in exchange add valuable experience which may very well help you secure that first client. Who knows? Maybe you’ll discover that you love working for the nonprofit sector, and you’ll obtain future paid assignments from the organization.
Design and Market a Website
You may already have a company website (and if you don’t you should get on that right away), but what about creating a website devoted to your industry? For example, when I started my PR firm my initial target market was indie musicians. When I tapped out my initial referral base, I created a website devoted to promoting musicians. I interviewed them and wrote reviews for them, and in turn I came into contact with a tremendous number of potential clients for my firm, and they already had some experience working with me. You can do something similar for nearly any subject you can think of.
Post to Forums and Newsgroups
Announce your company’s opening or promote your services in forums and newsgroups related to your target customers. Just be careful to read forum rules about advertising before you do. You can also use these sources to further your “expert” status by giving advice to those in need. You can usually include your company name and website link in your signature.
Target People You Know
Sometimes your best bet for a first client is a friend, family member, or acquaintance. They already know you and trust you, which is vital for any client-consultant relationship.
If your friends and family don’t have any use for your services, perhaps they know someone who does. You’d be surprised at how well-connected people are when you just ask. Perhaps they have a friend, co-worker or even a boss that would be a good client to target.
Join professional organizations and meet as many people in your field as you can. You may find consultants in similar lines of work as you, and you may be able to refer clients to each other for specialized projects. You should also network with industry professionals from your target markets, not just other consultants.
Direct marketing efforts such as buying mailing lists and sending out promotional mailings isn’t an ideal way to market your services. But building an opt-in list of your own can be a great way to keep yourself fresh in the minds of prospects (and convert them to clients). They can be slow to build at first, especially if you don’t already have a strong online presence. But start early and stick with it. A well-targeted opt-in list can pay off significantly in the long run — far more than an untargeted bulk email list that some less ethical marketers will try to sell you. You don’t want to start off relationships with prospects looking like a spammer.
Cold calling is similar to promotional mailings in that you’re going to contact a large number of people who didn’t specifically request to hear from you. It can be a daunting task, and if you’re not confident enough on the phone, either skip this tactic or find someone to do it for you. This is where you’re going to pull out the database of potential clients that you made earlier. Start calling companies from this list, because you already know they’re highly targeted. Keep in mind that this is a numbers game. So don’t let a “no thanks” deter you from trying the next prospect.
While keeping costs down is imperative when you’re still searching for your first paying client, you might have the most luck by simply purchasing ad space if your budget allows for it. Focus on local advertising first to potential clients in your area. Only advertise in publications or media that are going to reach your target buyers.
What have you done so far to try to land your first freelance or consulting client? Is there anything you’d like to try, but you’re not sure you can pull it off? Share your stories and ideas in the comments.
This article was originally featured on March 7, 2007. It was updated and revised on its currently-listed publication date.